What kind of man speaks so casually, calling our human troubles light and momentary?
Is this a young healthy man who lives in a palace? Is this an old rich man who has never gone to war? Is this a fortunate man who has lived near to famine and disease?
What kind of man is this who speaks so breezily and confidently about pain?
Is this a reckless man lost in an escapist fantasy? Has this man never been a pallbearer, feeling the weight of the dead on his own shoulder? Has this man never known the antipathy of other men, a hatred that is cold and unrelenting for years? Has this man never known exile or emergency emigration? Has this man lived so cushioned and privileged a life that his troubles have only been light and momentary?
But of course we know who this is. This is Christ’s own chosen apostle, Saul of Tarsus. Paul. And here is the life from which he speaks:
....more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
The man who speaks of "light and momentary troubles" (2 Cor. 4:17, NIV) is not a man who simply skimmed the surface of human suffering. This is a man who was driven down into its depths. How then can he speak of suffering with such seeming carelessness and confidence?
The answer is in the sentence that follows:
...as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:18).
Paul speaks casually about suffering not because he hasn’t suffered but because he reckons his sufferings as his union with Christ: because he shares in Christ's sufferings, he will share in Christ's glory (Rom 8:17). The latter is as sure as the former.
So the unseen things are what captures Paul's eye - the things imperishable, undefiled, and unfading - the wonderful things that are now kept by in heaven by Christ and will be revealed with brilliance and purpose and wisdom and abundance when He suddenly appears.
Christian author, Marshall Shelly, has written poignantly about the death of his infant son. Little Toby entered the world at 8:20pm on November 22, 1991 and departed the world at 8:22pm.
Shelley writes: “My wife Susan and I never got to see him take his first steps. We barely got to see him take his first breath. I don’t know if he would have enjoyed softball or software, dinosaurs or dragonflies. We never got to wrestle, race, or read…What would have made him laugh? Made him scared? Made him angry?
Three months after Toby had been born and died, Marshall and Susan's two year-old daughter, Mandy, died. “Why did God create a child to live two minutes?" Marshall Shelly asked. He then answers: "He didn’t. He didn’t create Toby to live two minutes or Mandy to live two years. He did not create me to live 40 years (or whatever number he may choose to extend my days in this world.) God created Toby for eternity. He created each of us for eternity, where we may be surprised to find our true calling, which always seemed just out of reach here on earth.”
Though scripture no where suggests our true calling is elusive until we get to heaven, I do appreciate the point Shelley is trying to make. Earthly life with all its urgent afflictions and peace shattering pain is still, in the end, part and parcel of the transient things that are passing away. The afflictions the Shelley family experienced - that many of you have experienced - are indeed a "true calling" in Christ but these things do not remain.
Sufferings in Christ do not beget more sufferings ad infinitum. Suffering in Christ begets the eternal glory of Christ. The transient gives way to the eternal. The perishable puts on the imperishable. The mortal puts on immortality.
When Christ appears our present troubles will haunt us no more. But even now they are haunting less and lightly because our hope in His appearing grows year by year, day by day. And this growth of hope is itself a fruit of our sorrow (Rom. 5:1-5).